Review: To The Moon

I’ve sat on my fingers for a little while, because I wasn’t really sure what to say about this. It’s thanks to the wonderful John Walker that this game came to my attention, but it took me a few weeks to give it a look in. I was mostly too busy turning 27, writing reviews, and being deathly ill. Not necessarily in that order.

Finally, last Thursday, I got around to playing it. I started at 23:30, thinking I’d give it a quick go before bed, and finish it the next day. Next thing I know, it’s 3:00, my eyes are sore from sobbing, and the game is over.

So it’s a great game then, yeah? Well, yes. And yet, it’s not quite that simple.

It weaves a great narrative, to be sure. A powerful, surprising narrative which kept me locked in from very early on, all the way through to the close. And beyond, in fact – this was a game which kept me from sleep, exhausted as I was when I finally laid it to rest. A narrative, in short, which is good enough that I’m not going to spoil it by giving you any details. Just know that it is as light as it is tragic, as cynical as it is sweet, and that it’s the balance of all these elements, combined with genuinely likeable characters, which makes it such a success. It’s also a narrative which genuinely explores a romance – a romance amongst non-player-characters, told as the story progresses. A romance neither sappy nor simplistic – an incredibly rare thing to see in a computer game.

As a game, it’s… well, it’s a point and click adventure. A point and click adventure devoid of traditional puzzles, without a functional inventory, and viewed from a perspective more familiar to fans of 16-bit RPGs. And that suits it just fine. The “click to advance storyline” structure works well in such a narrative-heavy game, avoiding the conflict that can affect games which try to mix challenging gameplay with a strong narrative – that juxtaposition of engaged protagonist and passive viewer which breaks so many games’ flows. This is a game that – for the most part – knows that it wants to be a reader’s game, not a gamer’s game, and it benefits from it.

Unfortunately, it seems that the developer panicked and decided that despite the focus on narrative, a few, more obviously gamey elements were needed – notably the occasional, incredibly simple tile-inversion puzzle, and a couple of basic ‘action scenes’ which see you struggling to catch/evade objects. And struggle you will, with neither perspective nor controls lending themselves to the endeavour. These elements add nothing to the game, and while they are short and simple enough not to ruin things, they do sour the deal a little.

More problematically for a game so reliant on narrative is the fact that, well, the script could really have done with an editor. There’s some particularly clunky dialogue in the game, and some grammatical (and even spelling) errors have managed to creep in. It’s not atrocious by any means, but it does detract from a few scenes, which is a shame. The flawed writing also serves to homogenise the characters, as all speak in the same voice – worst are the children in the game, who sound like no youngsters I’ve ever met. This is almost certainly a factor of the game’s limited budget, rather than a damning indictment of the developer’s writing ability – every writer benefits from a good editor (and I should know – my waffling on here distinctly wants for one), but getting one isn’t so easy.

Fortunately, while their manners of speaking may blur together, the characters’ thought processes and attitudes are clearly divergent – and unusually three-dimensional. This is a game that will keep you hanging because its characters are so well observed – by not being simple caricatures their ambitions and histories are so much harder to guess, and the game is all the better for it. It’s a game which allows you to make snap judgements about characters only to realise that there’s so much more to them than you first thought: it’s nice to be wrong about characters in a computer game for once. And it’s because of all this that you begin to care about the characters. You want to know about them, you want them to succeed, and in the end you allow yourself to be affected by the storyline. This is a rare thing in any narrative genre, and it’s what makes this game so compelling an experience.

Oh, that and the music. The music is simple and repetitive, in a good way. This is a score which knows how to build itself up, to install itself in your mind so that it can later call out to those memories in a way which demands an emotional response. It’s the perfect complement to the narrative, and helps to ensure that every dramatic scene elicits an appropriate response. It’s a testament to both Kan Gao and Laura Shigihara’s abilities as composers, and helps the game immensely.

And that’s pretty much it. To The Moon is a game which is barely a game, driven by a narrative told through a flawed script. It’s also one of the most beautiful games I’ve had the pleasure to play, weaving a powerful tale around three-dimensional characters, all accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack. It’s available for £9.83 direct from the developer, or £7.99 from Desura. And it’s worth every penny.


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November 2011
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